Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bar Covell: My new bar

I’ve never had a bar I’ve wanted to call “mine.” Typically when people ask me where I like to go out, I answer, “Pizzeria Mozza.” When that remark is greeted with a much-deserved eye roll, I usually shrug and respond, “I guess the Village Idiot?” with as much as hesitation as I can muster.

I’m a restaurant girl – not a bar girl. I like food, comfortable seats and music played at a reasonable volume, and I usually select places like Tavern or Little Next Door when I am meeting someone who is never going to call me again for a drink.

But I do like my wine. And I do like not feeling obligated to order food when all I want to do is drink and find comfort in a glass. And despite my hesitation to patronize most bars, I have always secretly wished that there was a place where I would feel comfortable going any night of the week, wearing whatever I wanted, with whomever I wanted.

Even if that person didn’t call me again. Or did, but only because he wants a restaurant suggestion for where to take a different, less neurotic girl.

Such is the way with my love life – it never seems to be quite right. (Though most of the time, I am actually glad to be rid of the male disturbance and potential threat to my independence.)

This past Friday night, I did, however, stumble upon a bar that’s right for me – the bar that I have been subconsciously looking for since I arrived in Los Angeles five years ago.

At first glance Bar Covell, operated by Owner Dustin Lancaster from Cafe Stella, and General Manager & Wine Director Matthew Kaner from Silver Lake Wine, does not seem like an obvious choice for “my” new bar. It’s 6.1 miles from my apartment, I have to drive through the Hollywood traffic quagmire to get there, and the closest restaurant on that nondescript stretch of Hollywood Blvd. just east of Vermont is Umami Burger.

Once inside however, it’s a different story. The lighting is dim, but not aggressively so – it enhances the social vibe, rather than detracting from it. Music is present, but not in a way that makes it more memorable than the conversation being held. And though it has only been open three months, the chummy linear space seems to already be crowded with regulars congregating around one of the few tables or on the cushy bar stools that parade down the length of the expansive bar. It’s not a club. It’s not a scene. It’s a place where regular people go to relax, unwind and catch up with friends over a not-so-average glass of wine or beer.

What appeals to me most about the Bar Covell, however, is the service. Ordering a glass of wine there is an adventure – an experience in itself. On Friday night, Matthew Kaner helped me navigate their wine by the glass waters. First he asked me what I was in the mood for – Rosé – and then he walked me through my options. The Chateau Virgile Rosé ($9) I ultimately selected, a fruit-forward blend of Syrah and Grenache, was a pure delight – perfectly refreshing, yet still substantial on the palate. I was sold at the first sip.

I couldn’t wait to go back to the humble Silver Lake bar that is silently making waves with its wines and personal service, and immediately made a date with two of my girl friends to return with me last night. I was less sure what I was craving when I approached the bar on this particular evening, but once again, the bartender helped me find exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. The Rail 2 Rail Zinfandel ($8) from the Lodi region in Central California bloomed on my tongue with its signature jamminess and spicy finish. But even more impressive to me was the time that the bartender took to help me select it without trying to push a more expensive glass on me.

That seems to be the trend at Bar Covell – and the intent behind the collaboration between Lancaster and Kaner. The entire staff is committed to making sure every person who bellies up to their bar finds the pour that is perfect for them.

I’m pretty sure that in that process, they will also – like me – find the bar that is perfect for them too.

Bar Covell
4628 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027-5408
(323) 660-4400

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reservoir Restaurant: New (and better) memories

I want it to be perfect tonight.

I want the food to awe and amaze. I want the service to sing. I want the dining experience to be everything it wasn’t during my first meal at Chef Gloria Felix’s Reservoir Restaurant in Silver Lake last October.

The dinner had been one of the most disappointing meals I’d had that year. Aside from the peach and blueberry crumble with condensed milk ice cream, everything else fell flat on my tongue. The bad experience left a bitter taste in my mouth – I was ready to swear off Reservoir and all restaurants for good. As I angrily punched out a post on the subject when I got home that night, I never imagined I’d have any reason to go back to the seasonally inspired restaurant that allows diners to create self-constructed entrees based on a list of sides and proteins.

I was done.

But time is like wine – it dulls all wounds. The hostility I felt in the moment weakened, and like usual, I realized that I’d let my emotions overpower my sanity. Of course, I wouldn’t swear off all restaurants forever. Crazy girl with pink blog cannot survive on oatmeal and turkey sandwiches and quinoa alone.

I got back on the horse and dined out again.

And it was good.

Even so, as I walk up Silver Lake Boulevard with Esi from Dishing Up Delights for our 7:30 pm reservation on Friday night, I can’t quite believe I’m going back to Reservoir. I’m all for forgiveness, Christian love and “hugging it out,” but not necessarily when it comes to matters of my stomach and wallet. Why give a restaurant a second chance when I’m on a limited budget and there are so many other places in Los Angeles I’d rather go or try?

But tonight involves special circumstances. Esi has a Blackboard Eats coupon for 30% off burning a hole in her wallet, and my previous plans for the evening had involved making granola and watching the season premiere of “Glee.” When Esi asked me to join her, HC from LA & OC Foodventures, and Fiona from Gourmet Pigs, for dinner earlier that day, it seemed like an infinitely better option. I’m all for spending quality time with myself, my oven and my remote, but crazy girl with pink blog cannot survive on TV and household chores alone either.

Despite my initial hesitation about accepting Esi’s invitation, I’m optimistic about the evening – and really rooting for the restaurant to dazzle me. I’m with good company, I know what not to order (the miso cod and the pizza), and I know that if all else fails, I’ll at least have wine (again, it dulls all wounds). Tonight, that wine is a Chateau Mas Neuf Compostelle Rouge Costières de Nîmes 2007 ($39) that does dazzle. The waiter describes it as “very French,” but to me, it is simply a beautiful red wine – full and rich and spritely on the palate. It seems to come alive with every sip, and I feel alive just by drinking it.

I feel similarly inspired by the starter I share with Esi, the grilled watermelon salad with arugula, avocado, Persian cucumber, ricotta salata croutons and a jalapeño-citrus vinaigrette ($12). The tart dressing enhances the natural sweetness of the watermelon, and all the components add further depth to the plate. The peppery arugula, salty bite of the fried ricotta salata croutons, the mild avocado, slight kick from the jalapeño – there’s excitement in every bite. This is a dish I want to recreate at home. On a day when I am surviving on TV and laundry alone.
My hopes are high that our entrees will follow suit – that everything about the evening will be that image of perfect I want it to be. “It would make such a great post,” I think when our server finally presents our plates. “Girl has a bad experience, decides to give the restaurant a second chance, and then is rewarded for the generosity in her heart with an impeccable feast of culinary eats!”

I’m excited by the appearance of my seared marinated tofu ($16) with my self-selected side, the farro with grilled asparagus, broccoli rabe, currants, toasted pine nuts, and roasted shallots. My excitement continues when I taste the nutty farro that is simply prepared, yet wonderfully satisfying with the varying textures and savory flavor profiles from the fresh vegetables. It’s very nicely done, and is yet another dish that inspires Esi and me to confer about how we could make it at home.

Unfortunately, the tofu brings my excitement to a halt. Both HC and I find the assertive teriyaki and garlic marinade overpowering on the actually very well-prepared tofu steaks. We love the crispy outside and substantial, yet not too dense interior, but can’t get past the salt shock from the marinade. Esi is also not particularly excited about her skirt steak with chimichurri sauce ($21), and a woman at the table next to ours also finds the miso marinade on her cod as off-putting as I had on my first visit.

At the end of the night, it isn’t the flawless meal I had hoped it would be, but I’m still happy I returned to Reservoir. The bad memory of my first dinner has been replaced by newer, happier memories. When I close my eyes and picture the familial space of the restaurant, I’ll think about our table’s great debate about which wine to order, Esi and me whispering about whether the jalapeño-citrus dressing is made with lemon or lime, and the laughter we all shared as we gossiped about Blogger Prom.

Good memories, like wine, dull bad ones. And this girl is happy she had the opportunity to open her heart up to find them.

1700 Silver Lake Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90026
(323) 662-8655

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

True Food Kitchen: A really good salad

“That was a really good salad.”

“A really really good salad.” I agree.

“We need to go back for it. Soon.” My mom responds, her voice grave and far more serious than it should be for the subject matter of... lettuce.

I sigh, “I can almost taste the dressing now…”

“So good.” She says.

“So so good.” I say.

The salad in question is more than just a heap of lettuce. It’s a salad with body. With substance. With a tart and sweet champagne vinaigrette that I want to pour into my mouth like chocolate sauce.

It’s a salad that actually satisfies. And doesn’t require a dessert course of soup to keep hunger at bay the rest of the afternoon…

I had been excited when I’d heard that True Food Kitchen, a Zen-esque restaurant for health nuts and the environmentally and physically conscious, would be opening its first California location at Fashion Island in my hometown of Newport Beach. Not only because I am a health nut (emphasis on the “nut”), and need more Zen in my life (among other things), but also because I’d had a pleasant lunch at the original Phoenix location last December.

Aside from the hair I’d found nestled next to the butternut squash and pomegranates in my Harvest salad.

That wasn’t so satisfying.

Even so, it was still a “good” salad and the cleansing food and courteous service had left an impression. The hair situation had been handled graciously, and I was eager to try out the new location at Fashion Island for a hairless ladies’ lunch with my mom two weekends ago.

In addition to our “really good” Chicken Chopped Salads with mango, apple, corn, avocado, almonds, manchego cheese and the aforementioned drinkable champagne vinaigrette ($14), my mother and I also opted for an order of the Edamame Dumplings with daikon radish and white truffle oil ($9) served in a light ponzu-dashi broth.

The light starter comes with four delicate ravioli-type dumplings, judiciously stuffed with a smooth edamame puree and garnished with shelled edamame. The elegant broth floods into the corners of the thin dumpling sleeves imparting a salty finish that sharpens the nuttiness of the edamame. It’s a beautiful, clean dish with precise flavors – one that also belongs under the header, “really good.”

It’s the salads, however, that stole the lunch show for us on that day. Finely chopped mounds of sweet apples and mango, sharp manchego cheese, tender white meat chicken, crunchy marcona almonds, vivid hunks of avocado and corn, and glistening champagne vinaigrette – this is what happens when lettuce dies and goes to heaven.

My mom and I bleated. Gushed. Extracted every stray corn kernel and diced apple from the bowl.

And then we harmonized.

“A really good salad.”

“A really really good salad.”

We’ll definitely be going back for it. Soon.

True Food Kitchen
451 Newport Center Dr
Newport Beach, CA 92660

(949) 644-2400

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Blogger Prom 2010: Living the glamorous life

"Someone notice me," I think as I cross the street to my car that is parked across from my apartment.

I glance around the tree-lined street searching for a neighbor walking their dog or arriving home after a long day at work. But there's no one there -- no one outside to notice me in my form-fitting black and gold crochet dress and low black heels. No one to see my deep rose-stained lips or curled hair that took me twenty-five minutes and two curling iron burns to perfect.

No one there to pause, rub their chin in consternation and think, "I wonder where she's going all dressed up like that?"

I'm on my way to Blogger Prom at Yamashiro Restaurant in Hollywood. The theme for the evening of air kisses, eating and Tweeting is "Hollywood Glamour," a theme that is far more appealing to me than the previous year's "80's theme." As fun as it was to wear an obscene amount of neon make-up and a bright pink frock, this is more my style. Especially in a city where "California casual" seems to be taken a little too seriously.

I'm anxious as I make the drive from West Hollywood. I want to get there now. I can't wait to see what the Blogger Prom committee -- Caroline on Crack, LA & OC Foodie, Shop Eat Sleep, E*Star LA, Lindsay from LAist, Happy Go Marni, Tara Met Blog, and the Liquid Muse -- have come up with this year. I can't wait to see the acquaintances like Nastassia from Let Me Eat Cake (pictured below) and Esi from Dishing Up Delights who have become more than just casual friends in the time since last year's prom. We will share hugs instead of handshakes tonight. Genuine laughs instead of polite giggles. "Remember when" stories instead of small talk about the traffic.

Everything about this night feels special. And I feel like I'm some how cheating at life to be a part of it. Normal people don't get all dolled up on a Wednesday night for a private prom complete with wine, cocktails, Cool Haus ice cream sandwiches, Crumbs cupcakes, ChocolateBox Cafe's chocolates, an expansive cheese display from the Cheese Impresario, and a taco bar manned by Chef Brock from Yamashiro.

Normal people go home and make pasta for dinner, and then watch primetime TV until their eyes begin to droop and the clock reminds them that they have to be up for work in 8 hours. I'm usually one of them. Usually the girl who easily falls into a week night routine of a Bar Method workout, a sensible dinner and a sensible bedtime.

Tonight, I get to be insensible. I get to wear a dress I would never wear in "real life." I get to meet and chat with the charming Chef Brock while I eat his made-to-order duck confit and cod tacos with pickled daikon and wasabi guacamole. I get to smear lush cheese over plump dried figs and sip red wine with no regard for my waistline. And I get to spend a night surrounded by the people who have turned LA into a "home" for me this year.

Staring out into the night sky overlooking Hollywood when I finally do arrive at Yamashiro forty minutes after leaving my apartment, I take a moment to admire the view.

"You're pretty awesome some times, LA." I think. Then I smooth my dress, coif my curls and walk up the stairs to go enjoy that awesome.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Magnolia Bakery's Chocolate Chocolate Cupcake: "Yes, I can eat a cupcake"

“I don’t want you,” I think as I eye the Magnolia Bakery chocolate chocolate cupcake my friend thoughtfully deposited at my apartment the day before.

“You can eat a cupcake, right?” She’d asked at the time, extending the white paper bag for me to take.

My stomach had grimaced in response. “Err… sure!” I’d enthused while secretly thinking, “No, no no, I can’t eat a cupcake!”

She’d beamed at me. “Great!”

I’d beamed back.

There had been much beaming indeed.

Until she’d left.

“I can’t eat this.” I’d thought then. “I feel fat. My jeans are tight. I have a date tonight. I need to fit into my dress for blogger prom in ten days...”

So I’d ignored the cupcake. Let it sit in its pristine white box for 28 hours without so much as glancing in its general direction. Soon it would be dry and stale and completely unpalatable. I could just throw it out. Pretend it never existed.

That was the plan.

Or at least it was yesterday.

I continue eyeing the cupcake that I absolutely positively don’t want.

“Why do you have to look so pretty?” I think, jutting my lower lip out into a childish pout.

I remove the cupcake from its container and observe the silky mound of chocolate frosting. I poke at the cake underneath with an index finger. Even though my friend bought it two days ago it still feels tender to the touch.

“I can’t throw it out.” I decide. “It’s still good. And she gave it to me. To eat. Not to deposit in the garbage bin alongside the banana peels and broccoli stumps.”

I carefully extract the cupcake from the wrapper and place it on a plate. I know now it’s going to happen. Once it’s been undressed, there’s no turning back.

I’m going to get down and dirty with the cupcake.

Even if it’s stale. Even if the frosting is hard, crusty and partially crystallized. Even if I gives me a stomachache and an addition jiggle to my thighs.

Except it’s not stale. The spongey cake has spring in its crumbs and buoyancy that is usually reserved for young cupcakes fresh from the oven. The heap of almost overpowering chocolate buttercream frosting is seductively smooth and light on the tongue. So much so that I can’t leave the excess on my plate. I scoop it up like mousse, savoring the high quality semisweet chocolate that oozes forth from every bite.

It’s a near-perfect chocolate cupcake. Whimsical in appearance, yet refined in its flavor – a specimen that could please both adults and children.

Tonight, however, it just pleases me. Even if I do feel fat. Even if my jeans are tight. Even if I do have blogger prom in 10… err… 9 days.

There’s no regret.

I beam at the empty plate and say out loud for no one but myself to hear, “Yes, I can eat a cupcake.”

Magnolia Bakery
8389 West 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048-4312
(323) 951-0636

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bastide: Exactly what I wanted

I didn’t want a fuss this year. I hardly wanted to acknowledge the continued expiration of my youth at all.

Unless, of course, it involved me eating cake.

In a new dress from Anthropologie.

It was a marked change from previous years when I would think about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go and what I was going to wear for months before my birthday. Growing up I always loved my birthday – would be so excited about it that I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before. My mom used to shake her head and say, “I don’t know anyone who loves their birthday more than you.”

It always seemed strange to me when adults groaned about “another birthday.” I didn’t understand how anyone could hate parties and presents and cake and ice cream and extra attention. Even in recent years, I’ve been excited about getting older, wiser and less of a post-graduate barely swimming in the “real world.”

“I’m an old soul,” I tell people. “I wasn’t really born in the year that’s on my birth certificate.”

Aging suited me and my old soul just fine.

Or at least it did until this year.

“You’re so young,” people said when I told them I was turning 27. “You’ve got so much time.”

I’d nod, but secretly felt sick inside. It doesn’t feel like I have time. It feels like the world that seemed so open and bursting with opportunity when I graduated from college is running away from me. Even with my long legs, still muscular from years of competitive cross-country, I can’t seem to catch up.

My birthday last week was a reminder of this. A reminder of everything I haven’t accomplished in the five years that have transpired since I left the North Shore of Chicago with wide eyes and big dreams. The only way I could conceive of “celebrating” the milestone was with a low-key dinner at Bastide with three of my best girl friends.

And lots of wine.

I felt some what conflicted as I zipped up my dress and strapped on one of my only pairs of heels last Wednesday evening. I was excited to spend time with my friends, but wished the birthday part could be pushed under the rug (or tucked away in one of the Campbell’s soup cans that hangs from the ceiling in Bastide’s garden room. But my dear friends – and the attentive and gracious staff at the restaurant – were loathe to let that happen.

Armed with a glass of Prosecco, I sat back and let them let me celebrate my birthday. And once the alcohol began to take affect, I actually began to enjoy it.

My friends and I stampeded through Bastide’s impeccable basket of assorted homemade rolls with freshly churned butter and rock salt with quick hands and fast tongues. It was even better than I remembered from my previous visit to the charming Melrose Place restaurant this past August. So I used my birthday as justification to eat three rolls – coated in an absurd amount of Paula Deen’s favorite seasoning.

Overindulgence would be a reoccurring theme in the night. Yes, I would order my own starter – a lush corn soup with crispy pork nuggets and swirl of curry oil ($11) and sigh with each comforting bite. Yes, I would gladly also accept a cup of mussel soup from the chef that each of us at the table would subsequently consume with audible appreciation for the well-balanced flavors and surprising textures. And yes, I would partake in the chef’s other gift – a beef tartare with pickles, capers, arugula and pecorino accompanied by addictingly salty potato chips – even though I typically hate raw beef and find everything about it unappealing and repulsive.

But I’m older. Wiser. Not the same girl who used to turn her nose up at sweetbreads and foie gras and cheeseburgers.

A tiny “taste” turned into four chips full of the surprisingly very appealing dish. The texture was more akin to that of tuna tartare, and the bold accents of capers and pickles further camouflaged the beef as such. If I’d been eating it with a blind fold, I wouldn’t have had any idea I was eating raw meat. Chef Joseph Mahon got the tail on the donkey with this one.

After the heavy starters and excessive amounts of bread and butter, my entrée –the olive-oil poached salmon with beluga lentils, snap peas, and a subtly sweet port wine sauce ($28) – was hard to bite my way through. Even with the “It’s my birthday” justification, I wasn’t able to clean my entire plate. I did, however, once again appreciate the fine quality and fresh oceanic flavor of the wild Alaskan salmon contrasted with the earthy lentils and sweet snap peas. It’s a beautiful dish, but is significantly richer than the other fish entrée -- the black cod with shiitake mushrooms, fava beans, arugula, and coconut mussel broth ($31).

I felt decidedly better about my so-called “expiring youth” as I looked around the table at the three people who wouldn’t let me cry myself a river on my birthday. The world still seemed like it was running away from me, but in that moment, it stood perfectly still. I had my dear friends by my side. I had a Sweet Lady Jane triple berry cake with rum vanilla ice cream in front of me. And I was wearing a new Anthropologie dress.

It was exactly what I wanted.

8475 Melrose Place
Los Angeles, CA 90069-5311

(323) 651-5950

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hatfield's Summer Vegetable Ragout with Exotic Curry Sauce

There were many things I enjoyed about cooking for myself when I moved off campus for my junior and senior years of college. For one, I no longer had to subsist on a diet of limp pasta with marinara sauce and garden burgers (the meat in the dining halls was… questionable), and for another, I got a serious kick out of grocery shopping and playing housewife in the kitchen. It felt decidedly grown up to be buying bread, milk and my own set of spices. Clearly, this meant I was truly an adult. Even if I did still call my mom to ask her questions like, “How long does chicken keep?” or “Is it safe to eat eggs past the expiration date?”

Perhaps my favorite part about cooking for myself, however, was being in complete control of what I ate. If I wanted to eat frozen pizza for dinner three nights in a row, I could. If I wanted to eat five brownies in one sitting, I could. And, if I wanted to eat an entire head of steamed broccoli with my dinner, I could.

And, incidentally, did – with more regularity than I did the former.

Unlike most children and teenagers, I loved the side of vegetables when I was growing up, and more often than not, wanted much more than the few spears of asparagus or bundle of green beans that my mom would serve me. It was amazing to me that I could make as much as I wanted when I began cooking for myself in college, and I took full advantage of the situation – eating more vegetables than most of my peers combined.

Today, I am still a sucker for my greens (and non-green roughage). My produce bins are forever overflowing past maximum capacity, I load my turkey sandwiches with more lettuce than I do turkey, and I’m always increasing the amount of vegetation in recipes. If it calls for a ½ cup of broccoli I use a cup and a half. A handful of spinach? Two cups. One carrot? Four carrots.

I feel a bit absurd sometimes when I see the quantity of food in the pan, so was thrilled when I stumbled upon the recipe for Quinn Hatfield’s Summer Vegetable Ragout with Exotic Curry Sauce in the September issue of Bon Appétit. My eyes glistened as I read the proportions – 1 ½ pounds eggplant, 1 pound assorted summer squash, 1 pound green beans, 4 ears of corn, 2 cups arugula. All this for just four servings? Hallelujah, Amen! For once, I actually needed to reduce some of the amounts – using only half an ear of corn per serving rather than a full ear. (I did, however, up the amount of fresh basil.)

The final dish was a cornucopia of fresh vegetables that I relished eating three nights in a row. Because I could -- and because I wanted to.

Summer Vegetable Ragout with Exotic Curry Sauce
Adapted from recipe by Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield’s Restaurant, as published in the September 2010 issue of Bon Appétit
Serves 4

Curry Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 small carrot, peeled, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, coarsely chopped and pounded with meat mallet to flatten slightly
1 1-inch piece unpeeled fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons curry powder (preferably Madras)
2 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups fresh carrot juice

1 1/2 pounds eggplants (about 2 medium), peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound yellow squash, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound green beans, trimmed, cut into 2-inch lengths
2 ears of corn, husked
1 15- to 16-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained
2 cups (packed) arugula
1/2 cup torn fresh basil

Curry Sauce
Heat 1 teaspoon oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, lemongrass, and ginger; sauté until slightly softened but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add apple and curry powder; sauté until vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Add remaining 2 teaspoons oil, then flour and stir 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually pour in carrot juice; bring to boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered until sauce is slightly thickened and reduced to generous 2 1/2 cups, about 20 minutes. Strain sauce through fine strainer set over bowl, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard solids in strainer. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
DO AHEAD Curry sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Cover; chill. Rewarm before using.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread eggplant cubes and squash in even layer on large rimmed baking sheet, sprinkle with pepper and salt. Roast until squash and eggplant are light golden and tender, turning occasionally, about 20-25 minutes. Remove baking sheets with vegetables from oven and set aside.

Fill large bowl with water and ice. Cook beans in large pot of boiling salted water until just crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on size of beans. Using tongs, transfer beans to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain. Maintain boiling water in same pot; add corn. Cook until corn is just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain corn. Cool slightly. Cut kernels off corn cobs; discard cobs.
DO AHEAD Vegetables can be made 4 hours ahead. Combine all vegetables on large rimmed baking sheet. Let stand at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix garbanzo beans into vegetables; bake until heated through, about 15 minutes.

Combine hot vegetables and hot curry sauce in large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in arugula and basil.

Monday, September 20, 2010

AOC: The memory remains

Nearly a month has elapsed since the dinner I shared with three close friends at AOC in honor of Lauren from Harb Knock’s Life birthday. Much has transpired since that time – two dinners at Test Kitchen, two evenings at the Taste of Beverly Hills, my birthday celebration at Bastide last Wednesday night, and lots and lots of running.

Time and new tastes have interrupted the memory of my meal at AOC, yet when I think back, the images are still as fresh and crisp as the Walter Hansel Sauvignon Blanc we drank that evening. I still remember slathering the dense slices of crackly crusted sourdough bread with prodigious amounts of the harissa spread. The combination was so addicting that we requested more spread – more bread – more of the carbohydrates that fuel our constant conversation (the reason we have three hour+ dinners).

To follow, there were olives that I shunned with a crinkled-up nose, and the restaurant’s essential bacon-wrapped dates that I couldn’t possibly shun even if I tried. The six caramelized pork bundles were gone in sixty seconds – a memory before they had time to register on our greedy tongues. We then turned our attention to the supple ribbons of speck with tart apple slices and arugula ($12). Even with the lining of fat streaked down the sides of the cured ham, it would be our lightest, most refreshing bite of the evening. Served with only a swirl of balsamic vinegar, the high-quality ingredients were able to shine.

The common link between the dishes that followed seemed to be oil. The market white fish baked in a ramekin with shell beans, preserved lemon and fresh breadcrumbs ($16) was well-seasoned and nicely cooked, but glistened from a heavy application of oil that muddied the clean flavors in the dish. Our sides of young broccoli with garlic and chili ($9), and curried cauliflower ($9) suffered the same fate. The oil was particularly noticeable on the broccoli which we avoided in favor of the more exotically lubed cauliflower. Though our hands were lined with grease by the time we finished passing the communal small plate of the fragrant veggies, none of us could get enough of the caramelized bits of cauliflower and onions. Before the first plate was even gone, we placed an order for a second.

Apparently, cauliflower fuels our conversations too.

The arroz negro with squid and saffron aioli ($14), one of my favorite dishes during my first visit to AOC, seemed pedestrian on this evening. Despite the intense black color of the rice, the squid ink didn’t announce itself on our palates with its signature punch of ocean brine. The saffron aioli was the best part – and was finished as a spread on top of our second order of bread.

The duck confit with black rice, mizuna (Japanese greens), and fresh figs ($15) was more successful. I was happy to clean the last strands of supple flesh and crackly skin off the bone since the birthday girl does not dig the duck. This, along with the cauliflower, were my favorite savory dishes of the celebratory evening.

While Lauren savored a cup of summer sweet watermelon sorbet for her birthday dessert, Sook from Yutjangsah and I shared AOC’s version of a butterscotch pot de crème with fleur de sel and salted cashew cookies ($10). It was blissfully light on the palate – surprisingly so after the heaviness of the preceding dishes. While clearly composed of cream, it didn’t linger on the tongue – it simply mellowed out the sweet and salty components of the pudding. Spoons would fight over these harmonious bites.

Though I look back at the meal at AOC through mostly oil-saturated glasses, the overarching memory of the dinner is one that tugs at my heart in a good way. Ultimately, when Lauren, Sook, Sarah, and I go out, the food is really just a side dish.

The main dish, and our main reason for going out, is for the conversation – fueled by the wine, bread, cauliflower, or, more accurately, nothing at all. At the end of the night, it’s always cooked to perfection. And never ever goes out of season.

8022 W. Third St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(323) 653-6359

Friday, September 17, 2010

Feta and Zucchini Fritters with Herbed Greek Yogurt

I love a good challenge. Aside from an excess of caffeine or sugar, nothing gives me more energy than being presented with an obstacle that I must some how figure out or conquer. It’s part of why I’m so obsessed with the Bar Method – I love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I get through a particularly hard portion of class without blacking out or crumbling to the ground amidst shrieks of agony.

It’s a huge adrenaline rush.

Once I stop feeling like I’m going to throw up.

When I’m not getting high on masochistic forms of exercise, I also love the less painful challenge of recreating restaurant dishes at home. (It’s easier on my joints.) As soon as I bite into something that tickles my taste buds, my mind begins dissecting the dish and spinning ideas about how I can compose it myself. Most recently, this dissecting and spinning occurred at Momed, the modern Mediterranean restaurant I dined at with Esi from Dishing Up Delights last Friday night.

We loved the zucchini and feta fritters served with a tangy yogurt sauce that we shared as a starter, and both agreed that they could easily be replicated at home. I took it as a challenge and left the restaurant feeling like a woman on a mission – I had to attempt said replication immediately.

As in the next day.

Using a recipe that I found on Simply Recipes as a guide, I came up with a version of Momed’s zucchini and feta fritters that I actually enjoyed better than the original. Partially because I didn’t have to share and could eat all three fritters myself, partially because I didn’t slightly burn mine, and a lot because I had conquered a cooking challenge.

And I didn’t even need to feel like I was going to throw up after.

Zucchini and Feta Fritters with Herbed Greek Yogurt
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Yield: 6 large fritters

1 lb of zucchini (about 2 medium sized), coarsely grated
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
1 large egg
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
2 tablespoons feta cheese
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Salt the grated zucchini with 1 teaspoon of salt. Place zucchini in a colander over the sink to let drain for 10-15 minutes. Squeeze any additional liquid out (patties will stay together better with less moisture), and then dump into a large bowl.

Whisk in the egg, then add the flour, chives, feta, and ¼ teaspoon ground pepper. Mix to combine well. Form into 6 patties – batter will be loose, but they will stay together once cooked.

Heat large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add splash of olive oil to lightly coat the pan, then add the patties. Cook, turning once, until browned (4-6 minutes on each side).

Serve with herbed Greek yogurt (recipe below). Can be eaten as an appetizer or an accompaniment to salmon (I, clearly, choose to do the latter).

Herbed Greek Yogurt

¼ cup plain Greek yogurt (I used Chobani fat-free)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
2 teaspoons fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons chives, minced
1 large (or 2 small) garlic clove, roasted
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350. Roast garlic in oven safe dish until tender – approximately 15-20 minutes. Mash roasted garlic with salt in small bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients. Whisk together with a fork, adding additional liquid (water) as needed. Chill until ready to serve.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Top Chef Season 7, Finale Part 2: “Now it’s time to jump into my cape and go and be the chef that I am”

There’s no time for lackadaisical prawn fishing or worm wrangling after Padma announces who will be making it to the finale of “Top Chef” Season 7. After a tearful goodbye with Kelly, the three remaining chefs, Angelo, Ed and Kevin, are immediately asked to return to the Judges’ Table for another surprise because apparently it’s not really “Top Chef,” it’s “Top Twist.”

Though, based on this season’s stellar cheftestants, we’re kind of wondering if maybe it should be “Top Twit?”

Padma informs the anxious chefs that they will be competing head-to-head for their final challenge (because it wasn’t clear already?), and that they will need to prepare the most amazing 4-course-meal of their life (because it wasn’t clear already?). The first course must be a vegetable course, the second course must be a fish course, the third course must be a meat course, and the final course must be a dessert. For an extra bit of fun, Tom and Eric Ripert will be selecting the proteins that the chefs must use in their dishes. And for an extra bit of fun for us – the starving audience at home who is tired of this season’s contestants, the chefs will have the help of three of the previous “Top Chef” winners – Michael Voltaggio, Ilan and Hung.

Kevin is like a kid seeing Santa Claus when he spies Voltaggio, who he has worked with in the past. “I want Voltaggio,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.

We nod in agreement. Don’t we all, Kevin, don’t we all.

Angelo is foaming at the mouth to be well Hung... err... with Hung so is thrilled when he is paired with him. He says, “We're in Asia, I'm in the finals, and I get Hung. You know this is the trilogy - so it's showtime.” Kevin is randomly paired with Voltaggio, and Ed gets Ilan. He’s sort of “meh” about it, but he’s sort of “meh” about everything and everyone aside from Tiffany and his quest to be a douche bag to Angelo.

Almost as soon as the chefs and their sous chefs get back to the hotel (a Hilton, in case anyone was in a coma the whole season), Angelo starts feeling sick. By the next morning, he can’t get out of bed and can barely keep his eyes open. He moans, “It feels like someone is stabbing me in the stomach,” and all eyes turn to Ed, who is a little too pleased about Angelo’s weakened state. Voodoo doll perhaps? We wouldn’t put it past ole Eddie boy given his self-proclaimed goal to “kick Angelo’s ass.”

It’s not looking good for the passionate chef who we’ve grown to appreciate like the occasional Brussels sprout. We don’t love them, but they have their moments. With Angelo stuck in bed while Kevin and Ed shop and do prep for their meals, however, it kind of makes us wonder if Angelo was mistaken about this so-called “trilogy.” Kind of seems like the Bermuda Triangle to us.

Fortunately, Hung and technology come to the rescue and Angelo is able to dictate what he wants Hung to buy and do while he is in the hurt box. The chefs learn they will be working with red mullet, cuttlefish, cockles (everybody’s favorite), slipper lobster, pork belly, and duck, and are then let loose in the Whole Foods of Singapore – Vivomart. Hung secures some foie for Angelo’s third course, a sautéed duck breast with foie gras, marshmallow and a cherry shooter, and Ed latches on to some corn for his first course, a chilled summer corn veloute with fried black cockles. Three hours of prep goes by fast with only Ilan for Ed to kick in the ass, and at this juncture we begin to realize just how much we are rooting for Angelo to make that amazing comeback.

After receiving an antibiotic injection the night before final prep and service, Angelo awakens the next day feeling decidedly better. Or in his words, “I feel like a rain shower passes through me.”

We aren’t sure either, but it’s good to have the effusiveness back in the kitchen. Especially when he throws us this gem… “Now it’s time to jump into my cape and go and be the chef that I am.”

Ed pretends to be happy to see Angelo “moving around,” but he secretly wishes it were just he and the silent soldier Kevin in the finale. Kevin is going about his business – getting along with his sous chef, making terrine, turning cuttlefish into noodles. You know, typical things that actual chefs do in real kitchens instead of whining or waxing poetic about broths. Meanwhile, Angelo’s still acting a little dazed and confused, saying, “Ed and I were just pushing like animals, but it's time for the fall of his dynasty and it's time for me to reclaim the promised land The story needs to end with me being Top Chef.” Again, we aren’t sure what he’s talking about either, but we think that story is going to need some prodigious foot notes.

After three hours of prep (and mumbo jumbo from Angelo), the chefs present their four courses to an impressive dining party that includes judges, Tom, Gail and Padma, as well as Eric Ripert, Susan Feniger, Seetoh, Paul Bartolatta, to name a few. There’s a lot of yumming, a little bit of hmming, and a wee bit of wry humor from our favorite judge, Gail Simmons. She’s a big fan of the desserts the chefs presented, saying, “All three of these guys just got down and dirty with their desserts.”

We have to admit, we’re kind of excited to see her get down and dirty with the desserts on the new Bravo show, “Top Desserts.”

The judges are impressed with the meals that Ed, Angelo and Kevin prepared for them, but do have minor issues with each chef. While they appreciated Angelo’s hand-made noodles for his pickled royale mushroom dish with char siu bao pork belly, they don’t see how it’s a vegetable course. They also find issue with his sautéed duck breast that he serves with a tart cherry shooter. Padma snarls, “I'm curious about why you would call that cherry puree a palate cleanser because it coated every corner of my mouth.” They are, however, fond of Angelo’s sautéed rouget and poached cuttlefish with Asian-style bouillabase, and his dessert, a Thai Jewel with coconut vanilla cream and crushed ice with exotic fruits.

While tasty, the judges are not as fond of Ed’s dessert, a sticky toffee pudding with fleur de sel crème chantilly that they feel is somewhat of an affront given the location of the finale. They are annoyed when he justifies his choice by saying he didn’t want to do something that might suck. They are also confused by Ed’s stuffed rouget, glazed slipper lobster and cuttlefish with zucchini that seemed to lack focus.

In contrast, they have mostly positive things to say about Kevin’s dishes – particularly his dessert, a frozen Singapore Sling with tropical fruits that developed complexity with each bite. They are also are excited about his sautéed duck breast with duck dumplings and caramelized bok choy, which they feel is the best cooked duck of the three meat courses. The only dish they have issue with is Kevin’s vegetable course – a roasted eggplant, zucchini and pepper terrine that they feel lacked “oomph” and was timid in terms of flavor.

Ultimately, however, the first course does not derail Kevin from his Singaporean destiny – interrupting Angelo’s “Top Chef” story, silencing the smack-talking Ed, and winning the title of “Top Chef.” Not too shabby for a kid from Jersey who doesn’t know how to work a wok.

But to be perfectly honest, we can’t help but wonder if Padma is punking us when she makes the announcement. Really? Kevin’s Top Chef? Even with his strong finish, it’s hard for us to disassociate him from the timid chef who used to follow Kenny around like a puppy. We’ll scratch our heads about this one for a while, but hope it does help him bring home at least some bacon for his wife and son. We are a little stoked that he stole it away from Ed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Test Kitchen: A starry night with Starry Kitchen and David Haskell

It wasn’t just about the food tonight.

I hadn’t enthusiastically accepted Stephanie from Stuffy Cheak’s invitation to join her 8:00 pm reservation at Test Kitchen solely because I wanted to gorge on Starry Kitchen’s lime-green fried tofu balls.

I’d gorged on them before. And there would certainly be opportunities for me to gorge on them again.

I was excited because tonight, for one night only, the pop-up style restaurant that is the talk of LA's dining town is featuring eight courses prepared by Chef Thi Tran "The Kitchen Ninja" from Starry Kitchen with wine pairings curated by the Sommelier for the night, David Haskell. The pairing of Tran and Haskell is as unexpected as Champagne and potato chips (which, incidentally, do go well together), or French fries and ice cream.

Just a year ago Tran was cooking and throwing dinner parties in her and husband/Starry Kitchen partner Nguyen Tran's North Hollywood apartment. She has no formal training – no roster of Michelin-star restaurants on her resume nor stints on a reality television show. She cooks from the heart -- cooks by feel -- cooks like a mother wanting to nourish her children.

In contrast, David Haskell's name has become synonymous with wine in LA in the past year. Most recently, he was the Sommelier/Director of Operations at Vertical Wine Bar and Bistro in Pasadena, but has an impressive resume that includes stints at Guy Savoy in Paris, Le Cirque and Aquavit in New York and Aubergine in my own hometown of Newport Beach. Other notable positions include forays as co-owner and managing director of Bin 8945 in West Hollywood, and Director of Operations for Jeffrey Best.

As different as Tran and Haskell appear on paper, however, the two are strikingly similar with regard to their respective fields. They are both passionate about their craft – and passionate about bringing their product – food and wine – to the people they serve.

I can feel that energy – that passion -- pulsing through the air when I enter Test Kitchen's lair in a sleeveless black dress a few minutes before Stephanie and my reservation time. It warms my bare shoulders, excites me and heightens my anticipation (and appetite) for the meal and pairings to come.

Given my dainty physique (read: low tolerance), I request that Haskell select only a couple different wines from the list that he thinks will pair well with most of the courses offered that evening. He nods in agreement, assures me he’ll take care of me and appears a moment later with an unusual looking long thin bottle that I fear contains Riesling.

I hate Riesling.

(Or at least I hate most of them.)

He tosses the label from the bottle down on the table for me to see. It’s a Batic Rebula white wine from the Vipava Valley in Slovenia – I breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not Riesling. The unique bottle was actually created specially for the family-run winery by Slovenian designer Oscar Kogoj.

While Asian food is notorious for being hard to pair with wine, the dry, subtle Rebula goes nicely with the dishes that follow. It’s a clean, well-balanced wine that develops complexity from the food it’s served with. The nuances are heightened by the flavors in each dish, so it's an astute selection for Starry Kitchen’s vibrant and intensely flavored Asian fusion fare.

Our eight course family-style feast ($40) begins with the SK Viet Chicken Salad (“Goi”) with cabbage, banana blossom, anise basil, rau ram, and shredded chicken. It appears to be a fairly standard version of a Chinese Chicken Salad, but the components are far more impactful on the palate than most I’ve the tired salads I've encountered. I love the crunch of the crisp veggies, pungent bite of the anise basil, and the sweet and spicy tang from the vinaigrette. Even though it doesn’t contain any quinoa, this is my kind of salad.

The Pandan Chicken pieces that have been marinated with shallots, lemongrass and galanga and fried in a pandan leaf, are another bright bite. The popular Thai dish reminds me of the paper-wrapped chicken my family and I used to order at Chinese restaurants when I was growing up – except they are far superior with the delicate seasonings and satisfying char on the pieces of chicken thigh.

The next course – “Chicken Wings & Pineapple… 2 Ways!” – is my favorite of the evening. The duo of dishes (a play on all the “fancy schmancy” duos all the “cool” chefs are doing) – includes a Pineapple Beer Chicken Wing Soup with fermented bean curd and watercress, and Malaysian Pineapple Coconut Chicken Wings with fresh pineapple, coconut milk, bay leaves, bell pepper and habanero. I love the acidity of the soup broth and the tender strands of falling-off-the-bone chicken that impart heartiness to the dish. When I finish drinking the remnant broth I tell Stephanie that this is the type of soup I would crave when I’m sick instead of chicken noodle soup.

I’m even more excited about the Malysian Pineapple Coconut Chicken Wings over steamed white rice. I’m floored by the flavor of the well-balanced sauce – it’s the perfect blend of sweet, savory and spicy. I want to drink it. And then order a vat of it to pour over everything I consume for the rest of my life.

Except for chocolate, of course. (That wouldn’t be the best pairing.)

I’m a little intimidated by our next course – the Curry Crab that has been rubbed with curry, onions, Thai chili with garlic and, apparently, "love." I’ve never actually eaten crab out of its shell before and am a little unsure how to tackle the pieces in front of us. I look to Stephanie, who was born in Singapore and grew up eating crabs like this, for guidance. She smiles and encourages me to just “have at it.” So I do.

Ten minutes later I’m licking flakes of crab meat from my fingers and desecrating the surface of several napkins. I know I look repulsive, but I’m having too much fun to care.

Post crab fest, we cleanse our plates with a Cold Kimchi Soup that is pleasantly funky yet soothing after the heat from the crab. I smile as I use a spoon to extract the stray strands of kimchi at the bottom of my cup. My Korean friends would be so proud.

For our next course, the Caramelized Claypot Catfish and Pork Belly with fish sauce, fresh young coconut juice and shallots, Haskell brings us each a glass of the J. Heinrich Blaufrankisch – a smooth red wine from Mittleburgenland, Austria. It’s the type of wine that I imagine would go well with many dishes – it isn’t too assertive or heavy on the palate, yet has a complexity and structure that would make it pleasurable as an everyday wine. It also remarkably holds it’s own against the claypot’s intensely soy-saturated broth -- no easy feat.

While I am typically a sodium-fiend, the broth actually proves to be too salty for my tastes. I do, however, love the robust flavor it imparts to the large chunks of catfish and thin slices of pork belly. When eaten sans broth, they are perfect, melt-in-the-mouth-but-not-in-the-clay-pot bites.
Ironically, the Satay Noodles with minced dried shrimp, lemongrass, flat rice noodles and thin sliced short-rib wafyu beef – the course I thought I might like the best – is my least favorite of the evening. Raw beef is still not my thing, and I’m not particularly fond of the gummy texture of the noodles.

The dessert course – a Young Banana Tapioca in caramel coconut milk served with a Brasserie Lefebvre “Barbar” Honey Ale from Quenast, Belgium – brings things right back on track. The warm tapioca is wonderfully comforting. The pearls are satisfyingly chewy and the caramel coconut milk infuses decadence into the dish. The sweet, buttery flavor is only further enhanced by the honey ale that shares the same caramel undertones. It’s a beautiful pairing. I’d take this over a beer float any day of the week.

As I finish my final sip of beer and bite of pudding, I feel further validation for always ordering a glass of wine (or beer in a wine glass?) when I go out to dinner. There’s a reason that there’s a magazine called Food and Wine. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Like French fries and ice cream. And, apparently, like Thi Tran and David Haskell.

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Phone: (310) 277-0133